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How should employers approach flexible working requests?

30 Oct 2018 By Helen Crossland

Helen Crossland explains how HR professionals should deal with applications for different or reduced hours

Employers may understandably expect that granting an employee’s request to work flexibly will equal contentment in the individual; appreciative of the ability to continue working in their role of choice while being better able to manage their other responsibilities and commitments. Not so, according to a study by Timewise

The results show that 65 per cent of employees who work flexibly or part-time report feeling less connected to their team, with 45 per cent feeling their input is deemed less valuable because of their reduced working time. A further 59 per cent consider their skills and knowledge to have fallen behind their full-time colleagues and that they have lost connections and networking opportunities.

Those surveyed apportion the above to a host of factors, including missing out on training and development initiatives, and meetings and social events being scheduled at times when they are not present. 

Eligibility

Any employee with 26 weeks’ continuous service or more is eligible to apply to work flexibly. Applications can range from a desire to work fewer hours or days, to working the same hours but compressed into less days, to vary start or leave times, or to work from home some or all of the time. 

Employers are obliged to give all requests meaningful consideration and process applications, including any appeal, within three months of receipt. Unless a request can be readily granted, a formal meeting is recommended to discuss the application; the options then being to accept or refuse the request, or to agree a compromise including potentially granting a trial period. Any rejections must be based on one or more of the eight prescribed business reasons.

Practicality

Some organisations are naturally better placed or set up for flexible working than others. A conclusion to be drawn from the research is that employers should think twice about accepting requests if they are doing so reluctantly, or if they cannot ensure the employee’s working arrangements would be properly accounted for. 

If the business is unable or unwilling to be adaptable to those who work flexibly, it may be better to decline an application than risk opening up a whole new range of issues caused by an employee feeling disaffected or sidelined. 

For a flexible working arrangement to succeed, it must be carefully managed with consideration given to the timetabling of meetings, business development and social events, the use of IT/communications, and learning and development opportunities which still include the employee as far as possible. Such measures can guard against employees being unwittingly or as the case may be, deliberately, marginalised. 

However, there must be compromise on the part of the employee. Businesses are not expected to work around any one employee and if they do, run the risk of inciting resentment in other team members. There also needs to be recognition that an employee’s chosen work arrangements will inevitably cause them to miss certain opportunities and information and that the employee needs to be equally invested in minimising such gaps. 

There is nevertheless, scope for an ‘out of sight out of mind’ scenario to arise once a flexible working application is agreed. This can result in a once healthy working relationship turning sour, along with the prospect of grievances, resignations and in the worst-case, claims (for constructive dismissal, part-time worker/sex discrimination or as applicable). 

While there may also be consequences if a request is declined, provided this is done for sound reasons and properly communicated, the risk factor would appear to be less than pursuing an ill-considered decision to grant a flexible working application or where it does not have the necessary buy-in from all parties. 

Helen Crossland is a partner and head of employment at Seddons

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